In “At Eternity’s Gate,” a vivid, intensely affecting portrait of Vincent van Gogh toward the end of his life, the artist walks and walks. Head bowed, he looks like a man on a mission, though at other times he seems more like a man at prayer. He carries an easel, brushes and paint strapped to his back, trudging in light that changes from golden to wintry blue. One day in 1888, he puts his battered boots on the floor of his room in Arles, France. He quickly begins creating a simple painting of them; the original now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The journey of those shoes from humble floor to museum wall tells a familiar story about van Gogh, whose painful life is part of a lucrative brand known as Vincent the Mad Genius. In “At Eternity’s Gate,” the director Julian Schnabel imagines a different Vincent. This Vincent — a magnificent Willem Dafoe — is not defined by that brand but by the art with which he at once communes with the world and transcends it. Schnabel is interested in this difficult, mercurial man and attentive to his hardships. Strikingly, though, his interest has a rare quality of tenderness to it, perhaps because, unlike most filmmakers who make movies about great artists, he is fundamentally preoccupied with art itself.
It seems almost impossible, or maybe foolish, that anyone would take on another biography of van Gogh, with all the multiple interpretations of his life and work and the inexorable churn of commercial exploitation. But working from a script he wrote with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg, Schnabel approaches van Gogh’s life by drastically condensing it, skipping or skimming over biographical milestones. His struggles and disappointments are often expressed obliquely, in Dafoe’s feverish eyes or attitude.
Dafoe has one of cinema’s great faces, and Schnabel makes delicate use of both its ragged beauty and expressive range. Dafoe’s coiled physicality suggests both fragility and determination, while his tensile face flutters with an astonishment of emotions that, by turns, suggest a yielding or off-putting sensibility.
THE MOVIE begins with a brief flash forward to Vincent, awkwardly asking a confused peasant woman (Lolita Chammah) to pose for him. The story then flips to Paris and settles into its primary time frame with Vincent and his younger brother Theo (a moving Rupert Friend), whose friendship and money sustain him. Here van Gogh meets an imperious, seductive Gauguin (a perfect Oscar Isaac), and soon he is in the South of France, where he finds his light and enters a period of feverish creation.
Vincent’s time in the south begins with a gust that introduces a palpable sense of bone-deep cold and of isolation that lingers even when the sun brightens. Instead of relying on reams of exposition, Schnabel introduces this period by focusing on Vincent’s face and body, underlining his physicality and the material conditions that help shape his sense of self and art. It’s here that the movie begins to soar, reaching toward its elegiac title with shocks of beauty and gathering waves of concentrated feeling. Together, Schnabel and Dafoe sensitively transmit van Gogh’s desire to “paint what I feel and feel what I paint.”
The first scene of Vincent in his room in Arles vibrantly conveys the roughness of his life and how that texture finds its way into his work. After he takes a small canvas (“Landscape With Snow”) out of his bag, the camera pans from the painting to his feet and up his body, and then settles on his face. He hunches, as if still steeling himself against the cold, and the wind bangs open and shut the window that brings dim light into the shabby room. He bites an apple, wiggles a toe poking through his sock, takes off his boots and begins painting them.
BY THE time Vincent brushes on gobs of yellow and red, a man, a room and a world have come into visual and sensual focus. The results don’t exactingly reproduce the painting in the Met that this copy is based on; the colors, scale and setting are different. The shoes Vincent paints more rightly belong to Schnabel, who has staked his claim on van Gogh both by making this movie and recreating his art.
To howl at this or any of the other liberties that Schnabel takes in “At Eternity’s Gate,” though, is to miss the point: The movie is a freely subjective portrait of van Gogh by another artist trying to see, paint and feel as he did. By adamantly focusing above all else on van Gogh’s work — and its transporting ecstasies — Schnabel has made not just an exquisite film but an argument for art.
“AT ETERNITY’S GATE”